Last year I was in Ahmadabad (locally – Amdavad) for an official tourism trip and I used this opportunity to travel back into the age of Sultan Ahmed Shah, the founder of Ahmadabad. And for this, I embarked on a Heritage Walk through the UNESCO recoganised walled city.
Later returning to the current time zone, I also visited Sarkhej Roza – the Acropolis of the East, and the Bai Hariri Bao during my visit last year. Dining in traditional Gujarati style at Agashiye, the rooftop restaurant at House of M G, and visiting Lucky restaurant, the restaurant with graves inside were other attractions of my visit.
Today let me talk about the walled city of Ahmadabad, the only city in India to be declared a Heritage by UNESCO on July 8, 2017. And the heritage walk tells you Why it got the tag?
The old city or rather the Walled city has lots to offer to a visitor, and so much to a travel writer/photographer. On offer is a great insight into the amazing history of the city, and the fabulous centuries-old architecture that existed in the heart of this Indian city. The life in the famous Pols (aka Mohalla or colonies), rainwater harvesting in those times, the tree-shaped chabutaras for feeding birds, everything is interesting.
I was thankful to the volunteers of Ahmadabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) who in association with the Foundation for Conservation and Research of Urban Traditional Architecture (CRUTA) take tourists on the heritage walk across the old city for 2 – 3 hours every morning from 8:00 to 10:30 AM at a nominal fee of INR 50 for Indians and INR 100/- for SAARC nationals. The walk is part of a conservation initiative to spread awareness and save the invaluable heritage of the old city.
As you walk through the old city, you cover nearly 22 heritage spots over a distance of two kilometers, you get acquainted with interesting stops including religious places and clustered houses existing together in the pol, markets, Royal Mausoleum – Badshah no Hajiro, and Rani no Hajiro, Bird Feeders, bridges, Mosques, etc.
Well, well, I am not here to walk you through the Heritage walk and stop at all the 22 spots, but I will just try and detail a few of the important chapters from history which are pretty much less complex and modest than what we face in the modern era.
The Starting Point is the famous 19th-century Kalupur Swami Narayan Temple and ends at the 15th-century Jama Masjid at Manek Chowk. This heritage walk is known as the journey of ‘Mandir to Masjid’ and you travel through time to experience an altogether different world.
The first important attraction of the walk is the 200-year-old Kalupur Swaminarayan Temple (built in 1822) from where the Swaminarayan sect started in India. The temple is always fully packed with devotees and tourists. The sprawling campus of the temple and also the delicate Teak wood carvings of Hindu symbols around the temple and monk ashrams are amazing and you shouldn’t miss exploring these.
On the streets, just before the temple the tantalizing aroma of freshly made hot breakfast of Garma garam Fafda with papaya chutney, and Jalebies sold in the shops outside the temple makes one feel hungry and being a jalebi lover, I did indulge in the tasty affairs. So please excuse me, let me gorge on the sugar-dipped tasty unending spirals, i.e Jalebies, and meet me after a while.
Okay, okay, time now to go …
After the sumptuous breakfast, it is time to embark on a journey to travel back in time and unlock the golden legacies of an old city that still looked wrapped up in time.
Ahmadabad, for your information, was found on an ancient site of Ashaval and Karnavati in AD 1411 and over a period of time has seen various cultures we see some of the finest Indian, and Islamic monuments and exquisite Hindu and Jain temples here. The old city is a maze comprising of numerous pols – self-contained neighborhoods sheltering large numbers of people. The pols are virtual small villages, characterized by narrow lanes, terminating at a square, and are self-sufficient with community wells, gates, blind alleys, and secret passages all built artistically. The Pols give the city its unique character – that of communities living independently and yet intertwined with others. Its carved wooden houses are another unique architectural tradition.
The journey into the amazing maze of the pols begins from Lambeshwar Ni pol. This is a heritage spot you reach after a sumptuous breakfast at the temple and numerous photography/selfie stops at the narrow lanes. This is the pol where the house of a famous Gujarati poet is located at Kavi Dalpatram Chowk. A grand house in the old Khadia area, set in a peaceful ambiance has an artistically made facade with an open courtyard and has a life-size beautifully carved statue of a famous 19th-century Gujarati poet. Shri Dalpat Ram Ji, considered as a social reformer also and pro-British rule for its progressive outlook was born here in 1820. The house now known as Kavi Dalpatram’s memorial is the place where he lived and created many masterpieces of Gujarati Literature.
The detailing on the statue; the Kathiawar embroidery kurta, one shoe on one shoe on the ground, a thick book and a pen in wrinkled hands with a pensive look are captivating. The statue of the poet is lovingly and respectfully called the statue of Dada and his house and the chowk is used as a common hangout place.
I am sure the pols will make you overlook other spots of the heritage walk and you will love to stay back at these pols where people belonging to the same community chose to stay in one area. I personally feel that the pols truly deserve a place in the listing of the wonders of the world and I will tell you why…
The meticulous planning of the pol is mindboggling and will lure you to explore more. The complicated maze of lanes; some of them intended to be hidden passages, some passing through houses with families still living there will make you. No, no need to worry, the residents will never notice you as you walk through these houses – it’s a daily routine for them and they will just continue with their daily lives.
Ahmadabad was known to be the most lenient Islamic state of the time and the pols are proof of that. The number of Hindu and Jain temples will make you forget that the area was actually an Islamic state.
For the explorer, there is just too much to see in every corner of these hidden gems in form of tiny pols, be it the front doors, the house columns, the furniture in the front porches, or antique cabinets in the charming shops from another era; there are infinite opportunities for a photographer and explorer like me. Each shop, each sprawling house/haveli is like a living museum in itself.
In a particular pol, you will find people of only one caste, religion, community, or profession. There was logical reasoning behind living in religious or community-based colonies. The nature of the job varied from one community to another, and so did the temple or Mosque chants. Pol’s arrangement ensured no one from another community gets disturbed during an ongoing celebration in another religious community.
The feeling of community and safety that existed in the close-knit families of a Pol again amazes the visitor. Shared walls and common courtyards, Angans and Otlas, were instrumental in ensuring harmony and respect among the residents.
Life in pols shows real emotions of life and not the fake life that we are used to in the era of social media today where we claim to be connected with thousands, but in reality, are lonely.
Pols can be equated with modern-day colonies with a manned entrance gate and a Blackboard to keep members up-to-date with the latest news and events to be conducted within the community.
The oldest pol in Amadavad is the Mahurat Pol, built around 1714. There are about 600 pols with about 60,000 houses, each about 100 to 300 years old. It’s difficult to believe that so many thousands of houses can exist in such a small area.
If you are watchful and an explorer, you certainly will notice so many chabutaras in all the pols; that are signs of the philosophical heritage of our ancestors’ consideration for birds and animals. I am sure you must be wondering what it is actually?
Well, a Chabutra is the most exciting spot of part of the tour. It’s, in fact, a bird feeder that is present in every corridor, and these beautiful, well-heightened bird feeders are attached to stairs to refill the feeders. This ensures that the residents never need an alarm clock to wake up in the morning. This is an experience that is a dream for modern-day city dwellers like us.
Also, the pols have an exceptional design of drainage system to ensure no water logging and also a unique rain harvesting system that can preserve all the usable rainwater throughout the year. The haphazard-looking construction designed in an amusing way lets rainwater gets collected and stored in copper piping and is cleansed with lime so that it remains clean for use, free of any germs or infections.
Even a couple of days around the pols is not enough to fully understand and you must have realized by now that you have only touched the tip of the iceberg. This treasure trove of exploration, I am sure must have been a major factor in giving Ahmadabad the tag of the first UNESCO world heritage city in India in 2017.
Certainly, strolling in the pols is a great way to spend a morning in Ahmadabad, and discover the old city, but relax, and re-energise yourself with a glass of Chach (buttermilk), there’s much more to explore in this walk where Modern meets old. There is so much more to learn and know about the olden days of Ahmadabad that no book can describe.
The next interesting and religious spot is the Kala Ramji Mandir House, a more than 450 years old Heritage spot located at Haja Patel Ni pol (locality of Patel community) with amazing wooden structures which hold the building together. It is a family temple and an extended joint family still lives here, but the temple is open to the public. The temple gets its name from the black-coloured Swayambhoo (idol which has surfaced naturally by itself) idol of Shri Ram in a sitting posture. There are only two temples in the world that has a black statue of Ram Ji and this one is one of them.
Next is Calico Dome is, or rather was a geodesic dome designed by Gautam Sarabhai, and is inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes in 1962 to house the showroom and shop for Calico Mills. The dome is in ruins now as the mill closed down and also during the 2001 earthquake, the center of the dome collapsed and heavy rains damaged the interior of the underground shop. This used to be a hot spot of the town as various fashion shows were organised here and have seen the famous Bollywood actress Parveen Babi do ram walks here. Ahmadabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) acquired it as a heritage property in 2006.
Ashtapadi Derasar (Jain temple), is a fascinating underground Jain temple with stunning decorations on the house frontage with marvelous wood carvings. An elaborate set of mirrors are positioned in such a way that people can view the idol from way up above. The temple was built underground to prevent it from being demolished by Aurangzeb’s generals.
Chandla OL– It’s more of a place with a shop on the ground floor and a residence on the upper floors. In Hindi it’s ‘Niche Dukan Upar Makan.’
Chandla Ol follows the concept of houses and shops in the neighborhood. The business owner selling puja items builds up a residential area on the first floor. This way, it’s much simpler and more flexible to run the business for him as the whole family is involved in the business of the shop.
This is one of the biggest and oldest markets for pooja (worship of god) items in Ahmadabad. You will find all the brass puja items at this place like Idols, Statues, Puja Thali, Copper Lota, Lamps, and many other brass items used in daily life. In the era of social media, it’s hard to find such a setup.
The royal Mausoleum, Badshah no Hajiro is the tomb of Ahmed Shah and Rani no Haziro is the tomb of his queen. These are very well maintained.
The walk ends at Jami Masjid, one of the biggest mosques in India and a building that is 200 years older than the Taj Mahal. Built during the reign of Ahmed Shah, this is an example of Gujarat’s ‘sultanate architecture’ and unique in terms of architecture with no domes; also the minarets were destroyed in an earthquake in 1819. The intricate calligraphy on the columns and carvings in the yellow sandstone mosque and arcades is unique. The Indo-Saracenic architecture at the mosque also contains many syncretic elements: some of the central domes are carved like lotus flowers, closely related to the typical domes of Jain temples; and some of the pillars are carved with the form of a bell hanging on a chain, in reference to the bells that often hang in Hindu temples.
Teen Darwaza, is one of the remaining gates of the old walled city. Close to the Jami Masjid and on the way to Siddi Sayyed mosque, this is one of the 12 doors and entrances that once adorned the walled city of Ahmadabad which once was a gated city. All these 12 entrances were named after the major cities they pointed to. The Teen Darwaja was named so because it had a 3-arched entrance.
During the walk, you come to Manek Chowk too, which is a vegetable market in the morning, a jewelry market in the afternoon, and a food street in the evenings. This is the place to come to at night. You will find people getting off their Mercs and Jaguars and feasting at these street food stalls. So don’t miss coming back in the night to savour some of the best street foods of Gujarat.
On completing this Temple to Masjid walk, I was fascinated at the simplicity that the people relished back then; which ironically, thanks to technology and telecommunication have forced us to fell apart instead of coming together.